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Leadership Lessons from George Washington

| April 1, 2013 | 1 Comment

Leadership Skills of George WashingtonYou may have heard the description that founding a company is like leading a volunteer army.  I couldn’t agree more and want to dive deeper into the analogy to see if we can pull out some useful nuggets.

It’s true, most startups are formed by individuals who are passionate about their idea.  But, the fact is that passion does not actually get the work done and they cannot do it all on their own.  They will need to attract other talented individuals who fill gaps in their skills to join the cause if they want to see it succeed.

Leadership

Interestingly, this is where leadership comes into play.   Leadership is simply defined as influence – nothing more, nothing less.  A true leader has influence over others in their decisions and actions, resulting in the followers taking action based on the input and example from the leader.

Said another way, the founder’s ability to influence others to join him in his pursuits will solely determine if those people will actually join, and in the end will determine the outcome of the startup.  Early in the startup phase it’s quite likely  there is no capital available to pay each person’s salary.  Thus, people will need to volunteer their time and efforts for the cause and making it even more challenging for a founder to attract the right people.

So how (and more importantly why) will others volunteer for a desolate and untested startup, one that might even be in its idea phase?  What does it take to attract, influence and retain the talent required to succeed in your startup?

Looking back into the history of the United States we can study great leaders and learn how they were able to lead a volunteer army.  George Washington is the epitome of the leader – strong, confident and influential.  He was the perfect leader for our country at a time where the talent he needed to attract were pretty much all volunteers.  Here’s a bit on Washington from Wikipedia.

Although Washington never gained the commission in the British army he yearned for, in these years the young man gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills. He closely observed British military tactics, gaining a keen insight into their strengths and weaknesses that proved invaluable during the Revolution. He demonstrated his toughness and courage in the most difficult situations, including disasters and retreats. He developed a command presence—given his size, strength, stamina, and bravery in battle, he appeared to soldiers to be a natural leader and they followed him without question.

Washington learned to organize, train, drill, and discipline his companies and regiments. From his observations, readings and conversations with professional officers, he learned the basics of battlefield tactics, as well as a good understanding of problems of organization and logistics.  He gained an understanding of overall strategy, especially in locating strategic geographical points.

As you can see, George Washington was exactly what the American colonies were looking for in someone to lead them to freedom.  He was strong in stature and in character.  He was knowledgeable in the tactics required for success in warfare.  He studied relentlessly – on his own men, on the competition, on the geography, and on organizational principles.  He didn’t let politics get in the way of his purpose, which was to win the war and emancipate the new country towards their new found freedom.

Washington was a true leader.  Drilling down a bit further, you can see Washington basically had three roles during the war:

First, he was the predominant leader and man in charge of the American forces.  In 1775–77, and again in 1781 he led his men against the main British forces. Although he lost many of his battles, he never surrendered his army during the war, and he continued to fight the British relentlessly until the war’s end.  He plotted the overall strategy of the war, in cooperation with Congress.

Second, he was charged with organizing and training the army. He recruited regulars and assigned Baron and General Friedrich von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff, to train them.  Eventually, he found capable officers, like General Nathanael Greene and his chief-of-staff Alexander Hamilton. The American officers never equaled their opponents in tactics and maneuver, and consequently they lost most of the pitched battles. The great successes resulted from innovative strategy , at Boston (1776), Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781), came from trapping the British far from base with much larger numbers of troops.

Third, and most important, Washington was the embodiment of armed resistance to the Crown—the representative man of the Revolution. His enormous stature and political skills kept Congress, the army, the French, the militias, and the states all pointed toward a common goal. By voluntarily stepping down and disbanding his army when the war was won, he permanently established the principle of civilian supremacy in military affairs. And yet his constant reiteration of the point that well-disciplined professional soldiers counted for twice as much as erratic amateurs helped overcome the ideological distrust of a standing army.

Sounds like a CEO and leader to me.  Although there are many others, here are 3 principles to keep in mind as you lead your volunteer army.

Unprecedented

The idea must be moving, unprecedented and important to the individuals involved.  No one wants to sacrifice for something we already see everyday.  People want to be part of something big, amazing and unique.  Many years down the road people simply want to be able to say to their friends “yeah, I was there at the beginning and we started it”

The main reason George Washington was able to attract volunteers to join the cause was because they were fighting for their own freedom and literally making history at the same time.

Dedication

A leader must be as dedicated – perhaps the most dedicated – to the cause if they are going to be an effective leader.  Followers will always be more influenced when leaders lead by example.  People don’t care much about what you say but will look more intently on what you do.  Dedication means working harder than others.  Dedication means fighting all the way to the end.  It means not leaving your co-founders the instant you sense things will be harder than you initially thought.  Simply put, a leader will attract and retain talent when the talent doesn’t even question the leader’s dedication.

Washington lead by example and publicly displayed his dedication to the cause of independence.  It is clear no one under him questioned or doubted his dedication, and in the end, by not giving up on the war Washington and the colonies were able to squeak out an unthinkable victory and changing history forever.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and  feel how others are feeling.  It’s the ability to “walk a mile in their shoes” and “see from their perspective.”  Being an empathic leader helps you understand what others in your organization are thinking, feeling and doing.

Why is this important?  Well, people hate to be told what to do when the person who is barking orders has no idea what is actually going on in the individual’s life.  It shows lack of perspective and lack of reality.  Instead, if the person giving the orders actually understood the reality of the other person, they can then amend their orders with more realistic expectations.  The leader will know what is possible and what isn’t.  They will be able to adjust the deliverables, understand appropriate timeframes, delegate important responsibilities, and find others to do the job in the end if that is what’s needed.

A clueless leader is an ineffective leader.

George Washington knew exactly what his troops were going through because he was right there with them.  He spoke to them and often dined with them.  He traveled with them and camped with them.   He “walked many the miles in their shoes” so in the end he empathetically understood their reality and intuitively knew what they were capable of.

Leadership is truly an art, not a science.  It takes courage, strength and dedication.  It also takes someone willing to walk the extra mile with their followers so they fully understand who they are dealing with.

Nick Hughes is CEO of  Seconds, a mobile payments startup located in Seattle, WA.  He also writes at SoEntrepreneurial.com and you can follow him on twitter @jnickhughes.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

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Category: Startup Advice